Roadtrippin’: Sun Studio

Some people wouldn’t understand. This is not conceit on my part but an observation based on the fact that people were all around, but I was the only one standing at the glass wall, gazing in glaze-eyed wonder. I may or may not have pressed my face to the glass. I was at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, and behind the glass was a mixing board from Sun Studio. I was imagining the hands that had turned those knobs and the music that had been monitored through that console. I was transfixed.

About ten years later, driving down Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee, I grew giddy with excitement when I spied the huge (and impressively accurate) Gibson guitar sign that now marks the original home of that piece of unassuming equipment I had swooned over at the Rockhall. Walking up to the old storefront studio is a little like stepping into a time vortex for a moment, like straddling an invisible boundary between Then and Now. This feeling is instantly wiped away when you step into the Sun Studio gift shop housed in the adjoining building, crowded with tourists and merchandise, but that’s forgivable enough when you look at the photos displayed on the walls of the artists who recorded at Sun and see things like a reproduction poster announcing a “The Howling Wolf Vs. Muddy Waters” gig ($3.50 advance/$4 door).

At the half-hour, our tour was summoned up the stairs to the museum where a modest collection of photos and artefacts are displayed, and we were introduced to our tour guide, Jason, who was part rocker/part classic deejay/part carnival barker (more about him on NTSIB in the near future). Jason prepped us for our eventual step into the actual studio by giving us a condensed history of the studio (which began life as the Memphis Recording Service where Sam Phillips would record artists and then sell those recordings to labels like Chess Records before he decided to start his own label), sharing interesting trivia (the distortion effect for guitar was born when the guitarist for Ike Turner and Jackie Brenston’s band damaged his amp en route to the studio and repaired it with paper before recording what is considered by many to be the first rock ‘n’ roll record, “Rocket 88”) and sampling some of the msuic (Howlin’ Wolf, “Rocket 88”, Elvis Presley’s very first recording). Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston

After viewing Elvis’ controversial, pelvis-swinging television debut, it was time to enter the studio. Descending the stairs and passing through the former office of Marion Keisker, Phillips’ secretary and the first person to record Elvis, I suppressed a giggle as I recalled the Sun Studio scene from Jim Jarmusch’s film Mystery Train in which the tour guide’s rapidfire spiel leaves a young Japanese couple mystified and exhausted. But when I walked into that small, simple, white room, I began to fight back tears. Scholars could argue for ages about where and when rock ‘n’ roll actually started, but I believe I’m safe in saying that if it wasn’t for the events that occurred in that room, NTSIB would not exist. Whether or not the songs recorded there started rock’ n’ roll, they were integral to the evolution-revolution that created the music I love, the music that is sometimes the only thing that gets me out of bed in the morning. When I stepped into that studio, I could feel the weight and power of that and was overcome in the most invigorating way.

Tour guide Jason continued to tell us about Sun and the great artists who got their start there, but I had a difficult time concentrating as the room itself and the spirit in the room (spirit, not ghosts – that room is alive) monopolized my attention. That small, humble, slightly age-worn room where Wolf, Ike, Carl, Elvis, Johnny, Roy, Jerry Lee and others effectively changed the world.

When the tour was over, I asked Jason, “Do you ever get used to it?”

I didn’t have to explain what I meant.

“Not really.”

Sun Studio Official Website